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Independent.ie

Tuesday 21 February 2017

An encounter with a priceless botanical gem

Published 03/08/2016 | 02:30

Eamon de Valera
Eamon de Valera

Unexpectedly encountering a thing of beauty swells the soul.

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When booking a holiday home in west Cork for the annual sortie with the sister, I didn't take much notice of its name, other than that it was something Woods. Past experience has taught me that a Park is often more of a haggard and a wood commonly turns out to a few straggly saplings.

We headed out the N22 from Cork then across rolling hills to the most landward point of Bantry Bay, Ballylickey where we turned right towards Ardnagashel Woods.

Swinging seaward in the entrance, my heart lifted. Mature woodland flanked the avenue on both sides.

Unpacking done, we headed out on foot down the gravelled roadway to what we, oh-so-intelligently, surmised would lead us to the shoreline passing, on the way, an ash, the height of which I have never seen.

After a sharp descent, we arrived at a small pebble beach. We pushed on along a narrow woodland path where the vegetation was so lush that we couldn't help feeling a white rabbit in a waistcoat would, momentarily, pop out of a hole.

There were magnificent trees - native and otherwise - everywhere, obviously a planned development.

I love trees and the larger and grander, the better.

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It's rather like people. When we are young, we are all bursting with potential. As time passes, most of us develop along similar lines and form the body of the forest. A few grow twisted, while even fewer few rise their heads above the rest and become those we admire, the noble oaks.

Back at the house, I turned to the internet and soon discovered we had stumbled upon one of Ireland's hidden jewels.

The woods were planted throughout the 1800s by members of the Hutchins family, relations of Ellen Hutchins. She was born in 1785 and became Ireland's first female botanist who was renowned for her identification and drawing of a number of seaweeds, mosses and liverworts.

The daughter of a Protestant magistrate, she began studying nature because a fragile physique meant she was unable to travel to Dublin to partake of the activities more usually associated with a woman of her class.

After Ellen's death, aged just 29, her youngest brother Samuel began to plant a variety of trees, some that had come from Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London. He had kept in contact with Sir William Jackson Hooker, who was a botanist friend of Ellen's and the first director of the renowned gardens.

The more I read the more I realised this was a colourful and visionary family who have impacted substantially for the good in the care and promotion of the natural world.

Succeeding generations of the Hutchins family resided at Ardnagashel House and continued to maintain its heritage, as did its next owners Colonel Ronald and Audrey Kaulbeck who bought the estate at the end of WWII.

They turned it into a successful country hotel which was visited by many luminaries including Taoiseach Éamon de Valera and Queen Juliana of The Netherlands. But disaster struck in 1968 when the house was destroyed in a fire.

The bulk of the estate is now owned by Rent an Irish Cottage Holiday Homes concern, which has converted the former stable block into 10 stables plus a further eight houses, in one of which we stayed.

Helped by a temperate mini-climate in a sheltered valley, the arboretum, which has been described as a "priceless botanical gem", is still beautiful and has many champion trees.The second Ellen Hutchins festival, including walks, talks and workshops, will take place during Heritage Week, August 20-28.

ellenhutchins.com

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